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Book tracks orphan’s memories

Kay Vasilakis
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Submitted Photo
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PARACHUTE, Colorado ” New surroundings may be frightening to a little girl. Imagine 16-month-old Kay Bowles’ fear, when she and other children were marched before a crowd of pointing and gawking strangers. The children had just arrived in Bartlesville, Okla., on the Orphan Train in 1924.

She was picked from other orphaned or abandoned children who came to farming communities on Orphan Trains. None of the children knew who their new families would be or what was in store for them.

Kay Bowles’ foster parents owned a 120-acre farm and no other children to help them with all the land and the animals. They did not have a tractor, just two mules; no electricity and no running water.



“They really wanted a boy to help with all the chores, but they settled on me,” she said indignantly. “They never adopted me.”

Her foster father, Charles M. Hughey, taught Kay to run the farm. She learned to scrape the hair off hogs with a machete when she was still a young girl.



Her foster father was also the personnel director for Phillips Petroleum Company. One of her other jobs was to crisply iron seven white shirts every week.

She has loving memories of her foster father, noting that he was kind to her, and encouraged education as an important part of Kay’s life. They left together in the mornings, he to work and she to school. He also waited for her after school, when she rehearsed for the a cappella choir.

Her foster mother was a seamstress, and taught Kay everything she needed to know about housework, cooking and sewing.

When she was 7 years old, Kay started making her own clothing, and learned to be an expert seamstress. She still has the beautifully embroidered beige 58-by-92-inch tablecloth with crocheted inserts she made when she was 13. She also has several dresses she made out of early man-made fabric, and can still fit into them to this day.

At the age of 8, she was expected to get a turkey ready for cooking by herself. Kay chased it, caught it and wrung its neck, but had to resort to chopping its head off with a hatchet. Then she plucked the feathers, cooked it and had it ready to eat as per her foster mother’s instructions.

She called her foster mother and father “Mother” and “Daddy,” and was an obedient child.

Despite all this work, Kay never felt any love from her foster mother, who told her she would never amount to anything.

“She told me over and over that I was there out of the goodness of their hearts,” she said sadly. “My mother never smiled at me.”

She wasn’t allowed to go to other children’s houses or have visitors of her own.

When her foster parents had been married for 23 years, they finally conceived a child of their own. Kay was in the 10th grade, but her foster mother decided to bring in someone else to help with the new baby. Kay felt her foster mother thought she was not good enough to be trusted with the new baby.

Kay ran away when she was 16 years old, hitchhiking to Tulsa, 73 miles away. She was fortunate to get a ride from an older man, who encouraged her to be a good girl and stay at the YWCA, which she did.

When the girls at the YWCA heard her story, they were shocked and told her she had been treated like a slave. Six girls shared a room. She sewed clothing for the other girls, but didn’t receive payment for her work. She did it because, “there wasn’t anything else to do. It was fun.”

“When I ran away, I was determined I was never, ever going to end up poor.”

Kay was in her twenties when her foster mother’s sisters and half-brothers wrote letters to the proper authorities on her behalf to get her birth certificate, which she needed for a social security card. The name on her birth certificate was Catherine Elizabeth Wilkins and her birth date was determined as Feb. 24, 1923.

With her sewing and a cappella experience, Kay wound up in Gilbert and Sullivan musical comedy productions performed at a Jewish synagogue in Denver. She fondly remembers productions such as “The H.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” or “Trial by Jury.” For 26 years, she designed and made the elaborate costumes for the cast members and performed in the productions.

Because she sang bass, she was always cast as a man, and gets a chuckle when she tells that aspect of the story.

“You can do anything on stage if you’re not you,” she commented.

She has outlived three husbands, all Air Force men. She had four children; two live in Colorado, one in Tennessee and one in Oregon.

Kay has lived in Parachute since 1984.

She has been working with author Charlotte Endorf, on Endorf’s latest book, “By Train They Came, Fragile Excess Baggage Vol. 2,” for the past four years, which chronicles the lives of Orphan Train riders.

Endorf gave a presentation describing characters from the book June 10 at the Parachute Branch Library. Both Endorf and Kay signed copies of her books.

At 85, Kay is determined to live as independently as possible. She is known to be tough and feisty, probably because of her incredible history. She still cracks jokes whenever possible, but underneath that tough exterior is a heart of gold.

She has given generously to many causes, too many to mention.

“Kay scrimped and saved her money all her life so she can do things for others, because she had nothing when she started out,” said close friend Laura Andonian.

“She’s a giver, she has been her whole life. That’s what she is.”

“I love surprises, doing things for people who don’t expect it,” Kay said with a huge smile.

Kay Bowles’ story is truly a tribute to the determination of a little girl on an Orphan Train.


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